Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Sexual References, Language, brief Strong Violence and some Drug Use
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Written by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole & M. Emmet Walsh
In a year that’s been loaded with cheesy superficial religious propaganda (GOD’S NOT DEAD, HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, PERSECUTED), it’s refreshing to see a film tackle the ideas of faith, sin, and moral values without ever once talking down to its audience or preaching to them. CALVARY is not a full-blown religious film and it shouldn’t have ever tried to be one. The protagonist happens to be a good priest in a bad place. He has his fair share of flaws, but also gets the viewer compelled into what a likable character he is. This film isn’t perfect, but stands as a compelling piece of serious cinema that offers difficult situations and complicated characters. Thus it should be fully appreciated for those two things and so many other merits that I will mention in a moment.
In a small Irish town, Father James is a kindly priest doing his best to keep his fellow townsfolk on the straight and narrow in a genuinely caring way. Of the town’s oddball population, one man has come to Father James in a confessional booth and threatened his life. The anonymous confessor has given him a week to square away his affairs before the act of murder, so James comes to grips with his depressed daughter (he was married before joining the priesthood) and still strives to help his fellow-man in any way he can. He also faces the difficult decision of how to approach the very real possibility of his death on the following Sunday.
The marketing for CALVARY has been underwhelming to say the least. It’s difficult to do justice to how well-done and quirky this movie is. Calling it a dark comedy would be overstating some intentional humor, but it’s also too out-there to be a completely serious drama. Another addition is that the commercials paint this as a mystery whodunit, but this isn’t the case either. James knows full well who’s threatening his life and the audience isn’t given the identity until a reveal in the last 10 minutes. This also adds to what a likable character this protagonist is. The Catholic church has huge issues and controversy generated around them, but director/writer John Michael McDonagh doesn’t shy away from these angles either. The reason the killer is coming after James is given in the opening minutes: he was repeatedly raped by a priest as a child. This isn’t treated as an excuse for murder, but there is a lot of sensitivity given to it. The same can be said for one stand-out scene involving a money-grubbing priest in the town church. Father James is kept away from falling into a stereotype, because his character goes out of his way to show that he’s an all-around nice guy not driven purely on faith or belief in God.
Looking back on it, CALVARY is almost entirely made of different conversations, all of which have Father James on one side or another. The interactions with his daughter (Kelly Reilly in a fantastic role), the townsfolk that also happen to be a gallery of potential suspects for the viewer (Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, etc.) or a dying old man (the aging, but talented as ever M. Emmet Walsh) are all fascinating to watch in one way or another. What threw me for the loop is that this movie offers a potential whodunit plot at the beginning and then only intersperses it every now and then. The points being made are interesting and the dialogue can range from quite entertaining to as downright bleak as it can get. The wandering narrative may disappoint some people expecting to watch a completely different movie. I didn’t think CALVARY would play out in the style that it did, though I adored the conclusion that doesn’t wrap everything up with a bow and allows for some interpretation from the final minutes.
CALVARY is an interesting, at points funny, and wholly insightful film that proves you don’t need a heavy-handed message to make a good film that dabbles in religious themes. The cast of characters are all fleshed out in such a way that I’ll remember the smallest of roles. Brendan Gleeson is amazing as Father James and the cast around him do an equally fantastic job. The script may get too wound up in certain moments and wander off from the more pressing matters at hand, but I was thoroughly impressed with this film. Everything isn’t perfect, but it’s really great in spite of some weaker areas. I can see myself revisiting CALVARY in the future and analyzing it through many different lenses.